One on One: Putting the ! in E!

Apr 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Sex, violence, drugs, booze-not much has changed since cable TV’s Golden Age. Ad sales men and women are still handsome, they still run fast and they still do tragic things to themselves and others. Join Electronic Media as we look at the life of Dave Cassaro and his fascinating, scandalous stories. This is your guided tour through the back alleys and backlots that make up the flip side of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. It’s the story you haven’t heard.
If EM had a show on E! Entertainment Television, where Mr. Cassaro is executive vice president of sales and distribution, no doubt that would be our intro.
But we don’t. And, dammit, it turns out Mr. Cassaro is that true rarity in Hollywood: a nice guy with no skeletons in his closet.
Golf clubs, yes. Skeletons, no. And believe me, we looked.
The first tip-off that Mr. Cassaro is, well, normal, is his office. A corner space with a fantastic Midtown Manhattan view, it’s decidedly no-nonsense.
The regular guy at E!
While the halls around Mr. Cassaro’s lair are hip-industrial, with walls filled with pictures of hosts and stars from E!, Mr. Cassaro’s office is spare and businesslike-so businesslike, in fact, that Mr. Cassaro’s TV is not even tuned to E! but to CNBC, the better for him to keep up with the financial doings of clients and competitors.

And the walls are not filled with pictures of Howard Stern, an E! staple, or Joan Rivers, another E! stalwart, or posters of J. Lo, or Johnny Depp or Courteney Cox. Instead one just sees family photos and the assorted golf souvenir.
If glitz and glamour and scandal and mystery are the true public face of E!, then Mr. Cassaro is its regular-guy heart. He has been there since the place was called Movietime and had to beg Nielsen to follow it. He was selling time when E! had a lot of it that no one wanted.
He gave up a good job at Fox and chances to go back to CBS to come to Movietime in June 1990 because the network needed a stable force on the business side while it experimented on the entertainment end. And through ups and downs and Howard Stern turns, Mr. Cassaro has been that rock ever since.
“Dave is the consummate pro. There is no other description,” says Mindy Herman, the CEO of E!. “He’s not a flashy guy, but he is the best sales guy I have ever worked with. He is smart and he knows strategy, too. He is calm and is always willing to be collaborative. That is why he is an essential part of this network’s business.”
All right, so that’s a satisfied boss. But surely the fellow is one of those company guys people on the other side hate to deal with.
`An impeccable reputation’
“Dave used to work for me,” says Joe Abruzzese, the president of network sales at CBS TV. (Aha! A bitter ex-boss.) “He is clearly one of the best salesmen I have ever met. This business is built on relationships, and you know Dave is never going to jeopardize that by trying to get you. He has an impeccable reputation.”
OK, OK, but surely the buy-side folks must rat on him.
“He is smart and personable and creative, but what makes him the best in the business is that he is just good people,” says Jon Mandel, co-managing director and chief negotiating officer at MediaCom Worldwide, the media unit of Grey Advertising. “Dave wants it to work for him, but he also wants to make it work for your company and your client’s company. The best thing I can say about him is that he gets it. And believe it or not, there aren’t many who do.
“One thing negative I can tell you, though,” says Mr. Mandel. (Yeah, go at him, Jon.) “He’s not as good at golf as he thinks he is. I can take his money there.”
A close associate says Mr. Cassaro is a bit of an entrepreneur, which is perhaps why his employees have always liked working for him.
“He likes the idea of start-ups and lets people try different things-a new way of selling or whatever,” says the associate. “I don’t know that that is the normal kind of person in such a structured thing as TV sales. But in that normal-looking guy is someone who likes a little action.”
Proof of the pudding: Mr. Cassaro had a very secure job selling ad time at CBS when he heard about a new start-up called Fox Broadcasting. It looked like something exciting.
“I was going from this really credible place to a brand-new thing. People on both the agency side and the client side weren’t so sure about this, but I said to people, `This is going to be something. This is really going to be the fourth network,”’ says Mr. Cassaro.
“I obviously wasn’t completely sure, but I was ready to try to work on something from the ground up,” he says. “When you do something like this, you find out who your friends are. Those are the people who return your calls under any circumstance. It becomes apparent, and you know who are the good people to deal with.”
Bold moves
If people thought Mr. Cassaro going to Fox was crazy, the idea of him going to Movietime was positively nuts. This was a place Nielsen couldn’t find with the Hubble Telescope.
“We changed the name to E! and took out a trade ad that said, `Trust us, it will catch on,”’ says Mr. Cassaro, eyes rolling at the thought. It was irreverent, but that’s what Mr. Cassaro and his bosses thought would work.
“We had a theory that the people who would watch E! would be entertainment enthusiasts, young and probably upscale. It was the audience that had graduated from MTV,” he says. “When we finally started getting Nielsen information, lo and behold, all of that came through. But it was a bonus. They were young and upscale, but they also had incredible indices vs. new-car prospects and moving quickly to upper income and all the good stuff that people look for when they are targeting young affluence.”
So they found the market, but then they had to come up with programming to fit. Mr. Cassaro says the original thought was to make E! into a general entertainment network, sort of like CBS, only with reruns. It was a major miscalculation. E! ran “Melrose Place” repeats and movies, but viewers could get that most anywhere.
“The audience wasn’t expecting that,” he says. They wanted something new, fresh, entertainment, to coin a network, with a capital, exclamatory “E!”
So E! became Joan and Melissa Rivers on the Oscar red carpet and inside stories of broken Hollywood romances and the somewhat expurgated version of Howard Stern. Some of it Mr. Cassaro loves; other parts, well, not so much. But he sells all of it.
“Look, when I was at Fox, I can’t say that I was passionate about `Married … With Children,’ and some advertisers didn’t like that show at that time,” he says. “But I could get passionate about the audience it delivered: young, male and surprisingly affluent. So if someone didn’t like it, I said, `OK, we have other shows.’ And I think it would be not too credible to tell every client that I am a fan of every show we have on E!”
Believer in the brand
Ken Bettsteller, E!’s chief operating officer, says straightforwardness makes Mr. Cassaro a big asset for E! on both sides of the table. “He gives a damn about the product and will tell you why it is good for you or not so good,” says Mr. Bettsteller. “He is not selling widgets. He buys into the brand, not just one show. He was here when we were a baby network, and now he’s helped create a fully distributed network. I’m sure there are people every day trying to lure him to the latest niche channel, but his longevity here speaks to the fact that he is a believer. And that makes his people believers. We don’t go to bed at night worrying about whether we are in good hands.”
Something Mr. Cassaro particularly likes right now is that E! is morphing itself in ways he approves. There is the spinoff cable network Style and E! Online. He thinks that some television companies have gone off willy-nilly, creating networks far from their original expertise. E! has stayed within its niche, extending out just far enough to keep its audience entertained.
“In the early days, when it was primarily the Big 3 networks, it was easy. They put it out and you, as an agency g
uy, had to accept it,” he says. “Now with cable and the Internet, everything is more complicated. You have to stay customer-focused. But that’s the way it is. How easy was it to work with a V-8 engine in 1955 compared with a similar one today? Well, it’s the same for us. Things evolve.”
Sounding board

Ms. Herman and Mr. Bettsteller say Mr. Cassaro has been a big part of any expansion, small or large. Though he is based 3,000 miles away in New York, the L.A.-oriented folks constantly call for his opinions of shows and concepts, a rarity for content people, who generally feel sales guys are to be put up with, not consulted.
Mr. Cassaro doesn’t try to make himself out to be a creative sort, though, just one of those sales guys. At the big events-Oscars, Grammys and so forth-Mr. Cassaro is there, but not sharing patter and pastries with Eminem and Julia.
“I don’t have to hobnob with stars, but with advertisers, so that is what I do there,” says Mr. Cassaro.
“I try to be a good listener and avoid salesman’s disease, which is talking without listening,” he says. “I am very service-oriented. I don’t like to go home at night without at least making an attempt to answer all my phone calls. If people have problems, I’m a problem-solver. For a buyer, the problem they have is they have money to spend against a brand message, and we have a solution where we can deliver the eyeballs that will help them get the word out.”
Mr. Cassaro didn’t start on the business-side track. In fact, in his younger years he was indeed enamored of the other side of the camera. He was going to be Frank Capra or at least his TV equivalent.
“I went to college at Marist [College] in Poughkeepsie [N.Y.], and when I graduated, I couldn’t get a job, a really good one,” says Mr. Cassaro. “I figured when I graduated college, I would direct films. It certainly didn’t happen. But then you go where life takes you.
“So I took a sales manager’s job at Macy’s. I was in curtains. Then I got promoted to pots and pans. But, ugh, I hated retailing. I was a huge movie and TV fan, and I really wanted to get into TV,” he says. “I was going to be good at it.”
Turning the page
He figured if he could get a foot in the door, he wouldn’t let anyone slam it closed. He convinced NBC to hire him in its famed page program. There he saw all aspects of television, local and national. He met some folks from the other networks as well, and when he was offered a job in affiliate relations at ABC, he switched his mind-set. Behind the camera was wonderful, but business side, well, that was practical.
And he was good at it.
The steps up came quickly. After ABC, he sold time for TeleRep. Then he joined CBS in affiliate relations and went on to network sales.
“At that time [the 1980s], it was very difficult for anyone to break into network sales, so they must have liked me,” says Mr. Cassaro. “Remember, there were only three networks, and people stayed forever. Affiliate relations was fine, but sales-that was the action!”
At CBS, he worked under Mr. Abruzzese, and, as Mr. Abruzzese tells it, Mr. Cassaro never stopped working.
“He was one of the most aggressive sales guys at any network,” says Mr. Abruzzese, chuckling at the memory of one particular incident. Mr. Cassaro had worked hard to get a difficult sports account. He thought that at any moment he could lose it. Mr. Abruzzese was the big boss, and he was staying late. So Mr. Cassaro was staying late, too.
“I was running out, trying to make the last train home from Grand Central,” says Mr. Abruzzese. “I see Dave running, too. He’s got this pile of papers. He wants me to sign off on them. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if we waited until the next day, but Dave’s an aggressive guy. It’s hard to say no to him. We’re running, and he’s ecstatic. He’s got this account. That’s how enthusiastic he can still be.”
But he’s definitely not a yelling-in-the-phone or swearing-at-a-loss kind of guy.
No bull
“No, this is a great guy who knows how to be a boss. When there is a state of flux, he is a calming influence,” says Brad Fox, senior vice president of affiliate relations at E! “He is honest, candid. He cares about both customers and employees, and that goes a long way in this crazy world. He sets the example like that, and it is very easy to comply. He resonates stability, and people from other departments migrate to work with him or for him.”
In other words, Mr. Cassaro is rock solid-no matter what he’s selling.
“All right, let’s face it, sometimes it’s his goal to maximize revenue he gets for garbage, and my goal is to buy the cream for a song,” says buyer and golfing buddy Mr. Mandel. “But Dave considers it all to be a mutual goal, and that is what makes him different. We get our promotion done right with him, and we always come to a middle ground. There is no bull in the end. It works for me and my clients and for him, which is rare in the business.
“Now, if he could only get that slice corrected.”